"Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death. To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving. It is to concern oneself with something other than life or death."Jean Cocteau
On the bissextile day of this good year, my comrades of the trail and I struck out from the sleepy mists of the enchanting Lake City of Udaipur and blazed the road on a day excursion to Chittorgarh, an impossibly massive fort of great antiquity which was the bastion of everything the Rajput stood for - but that will be another story for another time. Right now, I have a rather more engaging and entertaining tale to tell.
In the pleasant spirit of great unexpectations, we made a sudden stop in a place which probably has an Indian name that translates to "Middle-of-No-Bloody-Where" in English. There was the Southern Rajasthani countryside stretching as far as the eye could see, and the highway, which snailed into pinpricks in the horizons behind and before us. Above us was the immoderately cloudless sky; a violent blue eternity and its tiny, uncompromising sun.
Standing defiantly in the middle of all this monotony was a quadrangular plot of domesticated vegetation bearing snow white flowers - and more curiously, spheroidal fruits of a dusty green colour ranging in sizes anywhere from a marble to a tennis ball. They were borne upon stalks which looked too flimsy to bear their weight but yet resolutely they stood in the breeze, in silent protest of stupid gravity and its stupid principles.
I remember reading Lyman Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child and in it, I still recall, was a chapter which concerned 'The Deadly Poppy Field' which Dorothy & Co. somehow wandered into. In Baum's own words,
"They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep"
This imagery, half-forgotten and filed in the cellars of my mind where I keep memories of no great import, floated up to me unbidden on that day I walked into a deadly poppy field of my own. Of course, mine had white flowers instead of red, and also, mine wasn't deadly in the same manner Dorothy's one was - it's just that it had been recently sprayed with good ol' fashion industrial-strength pesticide.
Pesticide does kill, by the way. I'll have you know that I had a half-hour lecture in Forensic Medicine and one-and-a-half-hour worth of Pharmacology back in the Second Year of medical school just to get myself better acquainted with its awesome lethal potential.
Mr Harmindra Singh,
Apparently, Vincent quizzed Mr Harmindra about the weird looking crops grown along the highway, and so in response, the bearded rascal pulled our mini convoy of three Indian Kancil equivalents over by one of the acreages to give Vince a closer look.
"They grow it for the kus-kus; the poppy seeds," he explained.
Kus-kus, which has no relation to the Moroccan dish made from semolina wheat, is considered a folk medicine of great value in certain parts of India, and also a sterling spice used regularly to flavour dishes not only on the subcontinent, but in many other parts of the world as well. Oh, just so you know, the admirable maniacs from MythBusters have demonstrated on an episode that eating stuff jazzed up with the magic sprinkles can actually make you fail a drug test.
License to cultivate opium poppy for its seeds can be obtained by farmers, said Mr Harmindra, on the one condition that every drop of poppy milk produced by their jolly crops has to be surrendered to the government when their agents come around to collect them - everything else (which isn't saying a lot) belongs to the farmer. The size of a poppy acreage is highly regulated and standardised to ensure that a reliable estimate of opium production can be made for every farm. So, when a farm fails to turn in the expected harvest, its license will be promptly revoked
The stuff the Indian government takes; it's used in the commercial production of medicinal opiates like morphine and codeine by the world's pharmaceutical industries. India alone produces about half the world's supply of opium for this purpose. For far more sinister purposes, cough cough sneeze, I cannot say just how much is India's contribution, if any.
The bulbous seed pods are bled for their milk by making incisions on them, but I think we dropped in way too early to pitch in for the harvest. Had we been more timely - gosh - now that would have been a crazy cool experience to write home about.
Still, how many people are there really that can brag of participating in an impromptu field trip to an opium plantation during their vacation?
I thought so.
Been to this part of Oz at least,
k0k s3n w4i